Turning Rail Hubs into Urban Hubs of the 21st Century: a Realistic Proposition or Pipe Dream?

Turning Rail Hubs into Urban Hubs of the 21st Century: a Realistic Proposition or Pipe Dream?


Y Jin, University of Cambridge, UK


We consider a radical approach to densify the areas around rail hubs, its justifications, and the dynamics in terms of stakeholders incentives. The London city region is used as a case study.


There are obvious advantages in densifying the areas close to rail stations: it offers convenient rail access to more people, and in turn, increased rail share creates the potential for achieving economies of scale and hence lower unit costs of rail travel. This is well documented in the literature on transit-oriented development. Turning a rail hub into a new urban centre would maximise the advantages and exemplify the principles of land use and transport integration. In recent years, proposals of this type have emerged in a large number of European cities.

However, with few exceptions the progress in implementing the proposals has been slow, and the scale of actual development in business and residential activities around the rail hubs is dwarfed by that in the wider suburbia in most European countries. The high infrastructure and land redevelopment costs coupled with relatively modest prospects of what appears to be realisable under the current commercial and institutional contexts have doused enthusiasm. At the current rate of progress station area densification would play a very minor part in the foreseeable urban development in major European city regions, thus missing a major opportunity for achieving the anticipated economic, social, environmental and resource benefits.

This paper begins by clarifying the possible scales of economic, social, environmental and resource benefits of station area densification in a city region. The London city region including its commuting hinterland (which represents the middle of the range in terms the progress in this aspect among the European cities) is used as a case study to provide quantified evidence. Densification through redeveloping the adjoining land around major rail termini for business or retail (such as taken place in a number of large European cities) makes business sense and has positive overall economic benefits. But the scale of impacts is limited by the size of the redevelopment projects, which, however gigantic it may seem from a local perspective, are but a small fraction of total growth. Furthermore, these redevelopments tend to strengthen the highly productive centres thus exacerbate the productivity gap between the urban centre and the suburban hinterland, and increase long distance travel. By contrast, densification of a network of suburban rail nodes along with the urban termini would not only achieve greater overall economic, environmental and resource benefits, it would also boost the business productivity of all nodes including the new suburban hubs, reduce the productivity gap, increase the bulk and variety of employment in the new suburban hubs and the opportunities for more residents to work locally. This assessment of the scale of impacts provides the vision and justification for further action in integrating land use and transport development.

Clearly, in order to initiate the process for developing a network of rail-based urban hubs, a radically new planning and development framework would be required in order to overcome the hitherto insurmountable commercial and institutions barriers. The second part of the paper address this issue, again using the London city region as a case study, to discuss how the current best practice in Europe, such as the idea of urban land readjustment that has been experimented in the Netherlands, could be drawn upon to develop a generic station area redevelopment framework under increasingly decentralised, local decision-making. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed framework are assessed. In contrast to the first part of the paper, here the assessment is made in terms of the practical business case and monetary incentives for the main stakeholders of the redevelopments, including the investors, developers, governments, modal agencies, operators, businesses, residents and travellers. The knock-on effects and redevelopment dynamics are considered in outlining possible trajectories for the network of rail-based urban hubs to evolve.

An integrated land use and transport model of the London city region that incorporates the behaviours of trip chaining, activity space and travel time constraints is used to simulate location and travel choices and assess the impacts.

The paper concludes by discussing the land use and transport policy implications and outlining a way to monitor progress through the next decade.


Association for European Transport